Manarola, Italy, in the Cinque Terre on the Mediterranean coast of Italy. Pale turquoise waters crash on the peninsula with colorful buildings piled up on the cliffside in warm shades

ultimate guide to self-care while traveling

(Last Updated On: February 23, 2021)

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I’m sitting on a plane, fidgeting with my pillow for what seems like the 40th time, as I scroll through my Spotify options for something to fall asleep to.  As I finally settle into something that somewhat resembles comfort, it begins.  First comes the clearing of the throat.  Sporadically at first, gradually becoming more and more frequent, eventually morphing into a full blown rattling, loose hack.  I look back, peering over the back of my headrest to identify the culprit. 

There she was – three rows back, opposite aisle.  You may be familiar with the feeling of sudden dread I experienced as my mind raced with thoughts of recirculated air, images of cartoon germs wafting toward me, my propensity for illness post-travel.  I swear, that woman’s cough echoed through my brain long after I’d returned to the comfort of my home.  And this was before the days of COVID!

Flash forward three days later – and here I am, calling out of work just after coming back from a vacation.  Travel sickness.  It’s a thing.  Sadly, this is only one way that travel wreaks havoc on our bodies.  How often do you find yourself returning from a trip only to feel as drained as before you’d left?  Physically sick?  Probably more often than you’d like to admit. 

The truth is, there are actually a ton of components of travel that do more harm to our bodies than good.  Thankfully, with a little mindfulness and discipline, there are ways to overcome these so that we can function optimally both physically and mentally. Here are a few ways to incorporate more self care while traveling.

Obligatory Wing Shot; 2018

what is self-care?

Self-care is a pretty straightforward concept. Still, it’s more than simply taking vitamins and eating right. Self-care while traveling can fall into one of three primary categories – physical, mental & emotional, and social. There are some simple ways we can take each of these categories of self-care into account while traveling and easily apply them to our travel routines.

ways to practice physical self-care while traveling

the plane

Not a terrible view!

blood circulation and planes

First things first – the plane.  Do you know what happens to your body when you’re in the air?  Well, for starters… you probably notice some stiffness or aching throughout your body.  This is due in part to being sedentary for however many hours, when your blood isn’t circulating as it should be.  This causes pooling of blood around the joints, causing swelling and puffiness. 

Too much blood pooling could lead to deep vein thrombosis, which has the potential to be deadly in extreme cases.  Grab a pair of those hideous (but effective) compression socks before you go.

Let’s not forget the little anecdote above about the recirculated air in the cabin. That is not something to mess around with, and, inevitably, you will get sick from this at some point in your life. That’s why it’s important to prep your immune system for a shock before you even step foot in the airport with loads of Vitamins B & C.

Pack some lavender hand sanitizer and some sanitizing wipes in your carry-on to wipe down surfaces before you touch them.

dehydration & planes

Not only does flying make you bloated and achy, it exhausts and dehydrates you to no end. When you are flying at high altitudes, the air is thinner, meaning there are less molecules of everything – including oxygen. Lower blood circulation also contributes to lack of fresh oxygen. Less oxygen means more headaches and more fatigue.

Drink a ton of water, and try to avoid alcohol and caffeine. Easier said than done, I’m aware. If you are going to indulge in some in-flight libations, make sure to compensate with drinking extra water.

Another factor contributing to dehydration is the air outside the plane. It’s super dry, less than 10% humidity, so even breathing airplane-air is drying. I dehydrate easily (and also enjoy a glass of wine at the airport bar pre-flight), so I like to bring some saline nasal spray and hydrating face mist for the plane. It works wonders and I can’t believe I just started using it. If you want to arrive at your destination equipped to take on a new place, hydration is the best prescription.

the food

Best lunch in Barcelona – getting snacks from La Boqueria (including a bottle of bomb-ass olive oil) and taking it to Parc Guel for a chance to eat outside and take it all in. Barcelona, SP 2009
Plat du Fromage in Paris, FR 2010

For many people, traveling is the ultimate opportunity to try different foods and sample a number of varied cuisines.  Every time I’m in Paris, I’m pretty sure I survive off of cheese plates and wine exclusively.  While food is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable parts of travel, it doesn’t need to be an excuse to gorge yourself. 

I like to have small meals throughout the day rather than the normal three.  Think of it this way – it gives you more opportunities to try new things! 

One of my favorite ways to experience a place is through its local cuisine.  For me, that makes it rather easy to avoid fast food joints or convenience food. Still, it’s easy to be rushing around, trying to see all there is to see, and just want to grab something fast on the go. If this sounds like your travel style, perhaps try grabbing a snack from a local cafe in lieu of something from a fast food restaurant. You’ll be supporting a local business and also (most likely) having something healthier.

Try to eat quality local ingredients. This will allow you to experience the local flavors as well as get the most nutritional value from your meals.

the drinks

Throwback to my much wilder days.  This picture embodies how I (think I) felt that night.  The next morning I woke up on South Beach (with my then-boyfriend) to a police officer nudging me with his foot exclaiming, “It’s not cute to sleep on the beach!”  I kid you not.  Miami, FL USA 2008

Hand in hand with eating, comes drinking.  Ahh, wine.  My friend.  I still enjoy my wine, but enjoyed it MUCH more when I was in my twenties, so I am well-acquainted with its dire consequences.  When you drink on the plane, you arrive at your destination, not fresh, not ready to see the place, not ready for much at all.  Usually it’s either keep drinking, or take a nap.  

Drinking to excess leaves you vulnerable, prone to losing things (um, hello passport!), not to mention the risk of getting arrested in a foreign country.  Fun fact – most travel insurance doesn’t cover an accident that happened while drinking.  Womp womp.  Last, but certainly not least:  alcohol DEHYDRATES you!  And what’s worse, it dehydrates you but still makes you pee every 20 minutes.  Whether you’re drinking booze or not, hydrate hydrate hydrate!  I am guilty of not drinking water throughout the day while traveling due to the scarcity of bathrooms and my child-sized bladder.  Some places have public bathrooms that require a nominal fee, but they are lifesavers, and I gladly pay up.  No one wants to get arrested for public intox and urinating in public.

If you’re hydrated, properly nourished and not overly full, your mind will be able to focus more on your experience instead of whatever physical ailments your body is experiencing.  

the movement

Bermuda, 2018

Depending on the nature of your trip, your level of physical activity may be on par with your life back home, or substantially different in either direction.  When I’m on an island in the Caribbean, my physical activity is more or less restricted to reaching for my drink from my spot in the sand and yoga.  But when I’m in a place like Paris, where there are a ton of things to do, my days usually start at six a.m. and end at nine p.m., constantly walking everywhere in between, rarely going back to the hotel or AirBnb for a nap.  Why waste the time when you’re in a new place with so many things to see?

If you’re traveling low key, a more relaxing vacation, on an island somewhere, maybe find a waterfall you could hike to or a local yoga class.  Maybe a jog on the beach sounds appealing.  For the days when you’re walking 14 miles around cities and villages, stretch it out first.  Take 30 minutes, get a yoga video online or do some simple floor stretches.  Pre and post-flight movement are probably the most undervalued.  Find a sequence of yoga poses/stretches to do before or after your journey here. Your body will thank you.

Try to find somewhere to immerse yourself in nature! There are gorgeous National and Regional parks in any country you find yourself in. Not to mention, hiking can make you a happier person! Get out there in nature!

ways to practice mental & emotional self-care while traveling

the mindfulness

These Parisians have the right idea.  Side note – this is my favorite photo from that entire trip!  Paris, FR 2018

Think about it.  You’ve spent the last two months at work fantasizing about this trip, imagining the foreign air on your face, the different foods you’ll try, the interesting locals you’ll meet.  So why, why, WHY would you now, on your vacation, be concerned with what’s going on at work?  Unless it is an emergency, put the phone down, hell, put it in airplane mode.  This will save your battery to take pictures if you’re going to be gone for the day, as well as limit your desire to immediately post things to social media or text people what you’re doing.

Quit trying to view your destination through the lens of an Instagram filter and enjoy things organically.  The more presence you give to a moment, the more that moment will be engrained in your memories.  Your body exists in the present, but your head can go quite far.  Documenting these things is also incredible, especially given the technology we have available to us today – but our more human-like memories give us much deeper connections to those times we wish to remember.

the gratitude

How could one not be grateful waking up to this?  Guadeloupe 2018

The more you practice gratitude, the less likely you are to let little things upset you. Be thankful for the necessary resources that travel requires.  Be thankful for the opportunity to learn and grow.  And, after certain trips, be thankful that you’re able to return to the comfort of home.  There is always something to be grateful for – seek it out!

When you’re not letting the little things upset you, your brain isn’t dwelling on those things, instead it’s taking in your surroundings.  Practicing gratitude will make you appreciate the moments to an even greater capacity.  Time is fleeting and memories fade, but the more you are able to exist in the present, the more solidified your memory will be.  You will remember the moment not just because of the picture you took, but because you can remember the smell, the noise, the way the air felt.

dealing with overwhelm

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in crowds and feel the need to keep going; sometimes I like to just step off to the side to stop moving and take a moment to re-center.  Louvre; Paris, FR 2018

In some destinations, you may experience pretty heavy emotions. Maybe you’re traveling to a place that is far less privileged than where you come from, and you are dealing with feelings of guilt or helplessness. Maybe you’re traveling solo and experiencing a great deal of homesickness. Whatever the case may be, it’s common to be overwhelmed in some sense while traveling.

In this event, it’s important to take principles of mindfulness into consideration. Remember that identifying your emotions is a key step in awareness, which is a key component of mindfulness. If you find yourself overwhelmed, try identifying what the culprit is. We can never change unsavory emotions unless we can first identify them.

I personally feel overwhelmed in large crowds. When it first began happening, I couldn’t pinpoint what was making me feel so unsettled. Eventually, I began to put two and two together. I know now that I prefer places that have minimal crowds, and I can plan my visit around that. If it’s unavoidable, I know to step aside or remove myself from the commotion until I can get a bearing on my emotions.

ways to practice social self-care while traveling

when traveling solo

If you’re traveling solo, it can be pretty easy to become consumed in what you’re doing and forget to talk to anyone aside from restaurant staff. During my first solo trip, I went to Vienna, Budapest, and Kosice. One day when I was in Budapest, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t had contact with another human in more than ten days. It was a weird feeling! I promptly booked a massage for that afternoon.

One way to maintain social contact while traveling solo is to keep in touch with friends and family at home. While having dinner each night (or breakfast – take the time difference into account), get on Whatsapp or Facebook Messenger and touch base with your people.

Another way to nourish your social nature while solo traveling is to make friends. I generally don’t stay in hostels, though this is a common way solo travelers will interact with others. Since I usually stay in Airbnbs where the entire apartment is my space, I usually meet people at bars or on tours. Even sitting at the bar counter and making conversation with the bar tenders can be a great social outlet (and also how I met most of my friends in Budapest!).

when traveling with others

Sometimes our social needs can be quite the opposite. When traveling with friends or family, particularly for an extended period of time, social self-care while traveling may entail getting a little personal space. When I travel with my mom for extended periods of time, we often need at least an afternoon of space from each other. And that’s ok! It’s better to take what you need instead of letting tensions build and frustrations grow. It’s only natural to need space from someone when being in such close quarters together for so long!

Pollacapall Lough – Connemara, Co. Galway, IR 2018

All of the things listed above are not exclusive to travel.  You can do these things every day in order to enhance your daily life.  Evaluate the ways in which you take care of yourself and see if there are any things you are missing or that you need to add or change.  Chances are, if you see everything in front of you, you’ll be able to see where there is a gap. Happy exploring!  

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